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Dibdin was a master craftsmanPosted: August 27, 2012

Book Review

Dibdin, Michael (2007).  ‘End Games’

By Derryll White

Henning Mankell has his Inspector Wallender reading Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin.  I like Mankell’s work so when I saw ‘End Games’ in the Bibliotek in Ystad, Sweden, I grabbed it.  And I am glad I did.  The novel is set in Calabria, a province at the toe of the Italian boot.  There are very good correspondences with Andrea Camilleri’s work which is set in Sicily.

Presumably this is the last of the Aurelio Zen novels as Michael Dibdin is reported to have unfortunately passed away in 2007.  In this volume he is adept at presenting southern Italy in all its shame and glory.  Dibdin has an unerring eye for detail and he uses it to give the reader a sense of Calabria with its hot women and Catholic centre.  He is not easy on God, but presents the concept in the context of the hundreds of years of mostly unquestioning Calabrian belief.

Dibdin clearly loves language and has fun with it.  He pushes it every which way, into south Italian dialect, Vietnamese vernacular and American attitudinal slang.  And through it all he piles on layer upon layer of descriptive detail.  His writing is rich and the story is compelling.  He makes the reader feel immersed in Italy’s geography, food and family disputes.  At the same time Dibdin points relentlessly at the bureaucratic dysfunction and political criminality that has brought Italy’s economy to the brink of destruction.

This is a fine read, and if the end game of an illustrious career, it is notable.  Michael Dibdin was a master craftsman.


Excerpts from the novel:

TOMATO – Not for the first time, he asked himself how this bland yet cloying fruit had come to stand as the symbol of Italian cuisine worldwide, despite the fact that until a century or so ago very few Italians had even seen a tomato, never mind regarded them as a staple ingredient in every meal.  As recently as his own childhood in Venice, they remained a rarity.  His mother had never cooked them in her life.  ‘Roba del sud’, she would have said dismissively, ‘southern stuff’.

CALABRIA – The moment he emerged from the air-conditioned dining room into the sullen, stacked heat of the street, he felt his pores gaping open like the mouth of the goldfish he had kept as a child.

ITALIAN FOOD – “I’m serving spaghetti with clams.”

Zen paused, struck by the innocent recipe like a familiar face sighted in a crowd.  This was a dish he had grown up with, the soft clitoral gristle of the clams in their gaping porcelain shells, the hard, clean pasta soaked in the subtle juice, a nudge of garlic, a dab of oil, a splash of wine……

OLDER MEN – This had brought him an even bigger fortune, but best of all it had brought him Madrona, who had been working as a greeter for the firm that managed his portfolio of investments.  Okay, he was forty-nine and she was twenty-three, but so what?  Ageing was an option and Jake had opted out.

TOMATO – The Spanish had introduced the tomato  from their American empire to their dominions in southern Italy, where it grew like a weed.  The historic waves of Italian immigrants from the south had virtually subsisted on this cheap and abundant foodstuff, whose appearance conveniently recalled the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which hung on their walls, and on the bottled sauce that could be made from it to last year round.  They had adopted it as a symbol of their cultural heritage and identity and then sold it to the credulous foreigners among whom they lived as the very essence of Italian cuisine.

GOD GAME – To be honest, even the top-end, interactive, massively multiple role-playing stuff didn’t really cut it for him anymore.  The stakes were too low and he was too good.  Why piss around with the limits of the current technology when there was this persistent universe game that had been running for thousands of years, with killer graphics, no sharding or instancing and unlimited bandwidth.

OLDER MEN – “Cuddle,” she said.

It was an imperative.  The only problem with babes young enough to be your daughter was they had so much goddamn energy.  Back when Jake was her age, he couldn’t get laid to save his life.  Now his problem was rationing the available supply to meet Madrona’s demands.  Still, the cost-per-fuck ratio was good, although Jake had an uneasy sense that it might develop a negative tilt some time in the future.

RELIGION – But neither the teachings and sufferings of Jesus, nor the trials and tribulations of the Jews, constitute in and of themselves the essence of the Biblical message.  Like all great religions, Christianity has both a human and a superhuman – one might even say inhuman – face.  Its mysteries are revealed in the natural world around us, but their FONSETORIGO is supernatural and by definition passeth all understanding.

FASHION – Jake and Martin met at SooChic, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion place with accents of the Deep South.  The furnishings were 1950s Scandinavian, easy on the eye but hard on the ass.  A waitperson showed up and dispensed some intense culinary talk therapy.

COFFEE – “How about coffee?” their server implored.  “I have an organic bean from a collective of farms in the San Ignacio valley that shows excellent brightness and acidity plus a funky edge that doesn’t dominate the cup.”

“I’m good,” said Jake.

RACISM – “I’m not a racist, I’m a realist,” Sforza returned mildly.  “A racist believes that a designated ethnic group can never function and compete effectively because of its innate deficiencies.  I don’t believe that.  All I’m saying is that the Calabrians do not in fact function or compete effectively, despite having been given every opportunity to do so.”

POLITICS – “But you told me that the end times can’t happen without the Jewish state.”

“Oh sure.  That’s why we’re in Iraq.  Pastor Gary says that even though it turns out that Saddam didn’t have any like missiles and was never a threat to us, he was a big threat to Israel.  That’s why the president had to send in the troops.  The other stuff was just window dressing to keep the liberals quiet.”

SOCIAL NORM – …and the need for Enlightenment values, but dare I say that they sounded ever so slightly callow?  After all, just what are we doing with those values?  Take the internet.  Here’s the most powerful intellectual tool in the history of the human race and we use it to write narcissistic online journals and to “have our say” like a swarm of squabbling starlings.  Enlightenment values?  We’re playing hide-and-seek in the library of Alexandria,

WINDOW SHOPPING – The squads of girls continually passing and repassing regarded him with lengthy, intense and startlingly candid stares.  To an almost unnerving extent, they seemed to have an instinctive sense and acceptance of what they were here for and how long they had to make it happen, and weren’t about to waste any opportunity of getting down to business.  Tom didn’t get looked at the same way back in the States that was for sure, like he was merchandise that was being checked out.  The public street was as sweaty and dizzy with sex as any club.

CHANGE – For years now Zen had been living in a world where reality seemed to have been drained of all substance.  Once upon a time, and he could still remember that time, authentic experience had been the default position, as unremarkable as gravity or the weather.  Now, though, the authentic sounded a melancholy blue note as it receded, a Doppler effect induced by the speed of cultural change, as though sadly waving goodbye.

AMERICA – You Americans are idealists and when reality doesn’t measure up to your expectations you turn brutal.  You invented your own country and think that gives you the right to invent everyone else’s, even though you know nothing about their history or traditions.  Why would you bother?  History and traditions are the consolations of the poor.  Rich people like you don’t need them.

GOD – Maria accepted the existence of God in exactly the same way that she accepted the existence of the government, because you needed someone to hate for not preventing, or at least mitigating, all the needless suffering that went on.

MEMORY – “You’re living in the past, nonna!” was one of her daughter-in-law’s favourite taunts.  Maria [78] knew that was true, but she couldn’t help it.  Where else was she to live?  There was no other environment that would support virtually extinct life forms such as her own.

U.S. PASSPORT – Madrona didn’t have one, but it was still tough to convince her that that meant she couldn’t come along.  Actually Jake kind of agreed with her.  The U.S. was the only global super power left in the game.  If that didn’t mean Americans could go anywhere they damn well chose, showing up with a wad of dollars and everyone pleased to see them, what was the point?

LOVE – God she was beautiful!  But it wasn’t about that.  He felt an instinctive revulsion – what the Italians call pudore – at the idea of enumerating her physical atttributes, even to himself.  Yeah, she had good stuff, but so did lots of other women.  What they didn’t have was the mantle that surrounded Mirella like a saint’s halo.  Tom had never understood that musty old artistic convention, but he realised now that it was simply a means of expressing the fact that the person portrayed was exceptional in some way which we can neither define nor deny.  He also realized he was nuts, and maybe a little drunk.

AMERICA – A friend of my father who lived abroad for many years said that America nourishes your body but eats your soul.  Maybe it eats your brain as well.


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